Science, God, and the ultimate evolutionary question

Until science proves the origin of the very first cells, many will wheel out God as the default expl

Until science proves the origin of the very first cells, many will wheel out God as the default explanation.

No-one who has visited Richard Dawkins' website recently would have failed to notice the prominence given to an award being offered of up to 2 million dollars. Unfortunately for most of us, nobody will be granted the funding unless they put together a proposal for scientific research into the origin of life on our planet.

It's hardly a surprise that the site should draw attention to the award. After all, however much we think that we know about evolution, science is far from providing a confident explanation of the origin of the very first cells from which all life evolved. Until this gap in scientific knowledge is filled, many believers will continue to resort to God as the default explanation. For some, it must have been God who planted the first living cells on the planet, before leaving the stage and letting evolution take over. For others, the fact that no-one can prove how life originated sounds the death knell for evolution itself but is music to the ears of those who believe in Adam and Eve.

But are they right? Is science incapable of explaining the emergence of the first cells from which all life originated without the need for God?

In 1953 biologist Stanley Miller set up an experiment in the lab, intended to recreate what scientists call the earth's "primordial soup" when life first appeared 3.5 billion years ago. He created a sealed environment comprising boiling water and electric probes to simulate the effect of lightening on some of the young planet's hot waters. Thrown into the mix were methane, ammonia and hydrogen, the gases believed to be present on the early earth. The aim was to see whether anything related to life would form. Within a week, five amino acids had appeared in the water. This was a stunning result. After all, amino acids are the molecules which join up to form proteins inside living cells.

But to create proteins - and therefore life - amino acids must be strung together in a very specific order. And cells require DNA to do this. But how could something as complex as DNA have come into existence? Miller's experiment didn't answer that.

A possible explanation was found after a meteorite, slightly older than earth, crashed down in Australia in 1969. Amazingly one of the DNA bases was found inside the rock. Since the early earth was bombarded by meteorites for millions of years, this raises the tantalising possibility that DNA and RNA could have arrived here on meteorites around the time that life first appeared on the planet. This provides a partial explanation of how the amino acids could have developed into life.

But there are problems with the idea that life began in a Miller-like primordial soup. Analysis of ancient rocks has made it plain that at the time that life appeared, the earth was no longer rich in methane, ammonia and hydrogen. Besides, any soup would have been thermodynamically flat. This means that there was probably nothing to force the various molecules to react with each other, whether or not extraterrestrial DNA and RNA molecules were also present. And so far, scientists haven't been able to explain how the necessary molecules would have come together without a cell membrane.

But there is a different theory which addresses all these concerns.

It is well-known that the continents have been drifting apart throughout the lifetime of the planet. This is due to the movement of tectonic plates below the oceans. As these plates strike each other, new rocks are exposed to the sea water. This creates alkaline hydrothermal vents. The water physically reacts with the rocks and this releases heat along with gases reminiscent of Miller's experiments. As a result, warm alkaline hydrothermal fluids percolate into the cold oceans and, near the vents, structures are created which look rather like stalagmites and which are riddled with tiny compartments. These compartments could have been ideal places for chemical compounds from the gases to concentrate and combine to form early life in a fairly enclosed environment.

Although the existence of these vents had been predicted decades ago, it wasn't until 2000 that one was discovered in a part of the Atlantic Ocean which has been named Lost City. Scientists have analysed the cell-sized pores in the structures which were found there and concluded that they were almost ideal reaction vessels for producing the first life. What's more, the chemical imbalance between the sea water and the gases could have created an electrical charge which in turn possibly caused the chemical reactions needed to kick-start the creation of life.

But as I mentioned earlier, it's not sufficient to work out how the first amino acids may have appeared. It's also necessary to explain how DNA could have come onto the scene. Unfortunately DNA can't evolve without proteins. And proteins can't evolve without DNA.

Many scientists believe that the answer lies in the RNA World Theory. In 2007 it was discovered that nucleotides (and so RNA) could grow in simulated vents. At around the same time a scientific paper was published which concluded that RNA may have developed by living inside mineral cells in the vents. Biochemist Nick Lane believes once that had happened, RNA may have changed to DNA virtually spontaneously.

And so the hydrothermal vents theory provides a plausible account of how the first life could have formed on earth along with the DNA which was necessary to replicate it. But the theory certainly has difficulties. In fact, a similar theory based on a different type of vents, black smokers, is now generally given short shrift by the scientific community. Perhaps the hydrothermal vents theory will likewise come unstuck.

This is a difficult area of science. No doubt whoever receives that award, will have to work hard to earn every cent.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Independent and the Humanist and is a contributor to Skeptic Magazine. His email address is: andrewbelief@gmail.com

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Ukip's "integration agenda" is another lurch away from the mainstream

Ukip's only chance of survival is on the nativist fringe. It won't be a happy - or successful - existence. 

After Ukip leader Paul Nuttall failed to steal a famous by-election victory in Stoke-on-Trent, his party’s militant tendency offered a prompt and simple diagnosis: the party was just too nice.

Two months on, with Nuttall now pledging to ban the burqa, sharia courts, new Islamic schools, subject girls from at-risk backgrounds to yearly female genital mutilation checks and make race an aggravating factor in some offences, they are unlikely to making those same complaints. Of the many criticisms one can make of the controversial policy blitz, a surfeit of niceness isn’t one of them – even if Nuttall is comparing himself to Gandhi. But what explains Ukip’s lurch deep into Breitbart territory – and what does it mean for the future of the party?

It’s tempting to chalk this one up as a victory for the hardliners who derided Nuttall – who, absurd though it seems now, was Ukip’s unity candidate – and his attempts to court women voters with a softer, “Nicekip” platform. It’s true that Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, loathed by the fags-and-flags wing of the party for their wet anti-Faragism and prim sensibilities, are safely gone. Liberated from the strain of, erm, having an MP, the true believers have taken back control.

That neat analysis quickly falls down when one takes a look at the chippiest defenders of Ukip’s new “integration agenda”: Suzanne Evans and Patrick O’Flynn. Once the pair were at the vanguard of the push to unseat Farage and chart a friendlier tack into Tory seats in the Shires. Now they try and spin policies that could be justly criticised with a favourite Carswell slur – “ugly nativism” – as a sort of noble muscular secularism. That they of all people are endorsing the new line underlines just how much trouble Ukip are in. Deprived of their ownership of Brexit, the party has little, if anything, left to offer the political mainstream.

The consequences have been felt more keenly inside the party than in the country, where Ukip has plunged to below 5 per cent in some polls. Plenty would argue that the party – even at their high watermark around 2014 – never operated within the mainstream currents of political thought anyway, instead dragging the Tories to the right. But it was always an uneasy and at times barely coherent coalition between the authoritarian and libertarian right, united only by their rejection of Europe. For the latter, Ukip isn’t about opposition to the sensibilities of polite society but compatibility with them. Theirs is a focus on grammar schools, hard graft and flat taxes, not smearing Romanians and hanging child murderers.

Whatever the likes of O’Flynn and Evans say, though, Ukip has now ceded that libertarian ground it once had claim to. Disgruntled and departed Kippers point to Nuttall’s loss in Stoke-on-Trent Central as the reason why.

“Since the focus on the EU has gone, and after the election in Stoke, there have been people within the Ukip NEC trying to drive the party towards the far-right,” says Tariq Mahmood, a practicing Muslim and self-styled libertarian who stood for the party in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent South in 2015. He has since joined the Conservatives, and complains that efforts to court the aspirational middle classes and British Muslims (among whom he says Ukip are now “100 per cent” finished) have been jettisoned in favour of what an essentially nativist platform. While Ukip stress that their beef is with cultural practices and not Islam, Mahmood believes that argument is a mere figleaf - and Ukip, he says, know the distinction will be lost on many people. 

“It was an uphill struggle even previously to try to persuade individuals that we were a libertarian party and that we were not hostile to any individual belief,” he adds, ruefully. “Now, with what Peter Whittle and Paul [Nuttall] have said on integration, and with the prevailing mood with the NEC, the strategy seems to be to create division.”

The logic behind this ideological retrenchment is clear enough. Though Ukip stood in 624 seats at the 2015 election, insiders acknowledge that they are unlikely to reach anywhere near that total this time. Its chances of winning even one seat are perilously slim, as is painfully clear from Nuttall's prevarication as to whether he'll stand or where exactly. Resources will instead be poured into a handful of target seats that broke heavily for leave last June, and the party’s (white) core demographic courted much more ruthlessly. 

But those resources, historically scant anyway, have been depleted by its rightward lurch: both Mahmood and Owais Rajput, a former parliamentary candidate in Bradford East, speak of a flight of Asian members from the party. “There’s nothing left for me, other than to resign. It’s not only me – there are lots of other British citizens of Muslim faith who are following me as well,” he told me on the day Ukip dropped its new policies. “Their policy, long-term, is to try to create division in local communities, which is very, very dangerous.”

Both agree that Ukip’s future is as an ethnic nationalist party, which Nuttall and those around him have vigorously denied. But if that is the party’s strategy, it’s a witless one. Ukip has already swallowed most of those votes already, as the decline of the British National Party shows, and the electoral ceiling for those politics is a low one. The party may well tighten its grip on its small demographic core, but will hasten the flight of softer members and voters to the Tories.

Its breakneck change of pace will also bodes ill for its survival as a cohesive fighting force. There will inevitably be further tension among its febrile cohort of elected politicians. Nuttall’s foreign affairs spokesman, West Midlands MEP Jim Carver, this week resigned his post in protest at the burqa ban proposal (“I’m an old liberal,” he told me. “You’ve got to have that freedom of choice.”). He insists he won’t be quitting, and likened Ukip’s internal wrangles to those in other parties. “What you’ve got to is call out people you disagree with,” he said. “Look at the stick that people like Tom Watson is getting from Momentum! This isn’t just happening in Ukip. There’s a tug of war going in all political parties.”  

But Carver is a Ukip member of abnormal vintage, having joined the party in 1996. For others the allegiance cannot and will not hold as the party’s public face gets uglier and its electoral positioning even more uncompromising.  As the exodus of its 2015 supporters to the Tories shows, Ukip’s electoral cachet is a much more ephemeral thing than the parties of old. Senior figures protest that policing Brexit remains key to its policy platform.

Its new strategy underlines how the party cannot remain a broad church defined entirely by its opposition to Europe. “All I know,” Carver told me, “is that I’ve got to be true to my principles”. Recent events prove for most of the wetter wing of his party, that will mean leaving.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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